The Little Tramp at 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial Celebration

Chaplin3Let’s face it, with every new year a new 100th anniversary of something or someone will inevitably arise. While others might have been off celebrating the centennial births of George Reeves (Superman) and Danny Thomas (Make Room for Daddy), or the film debuts of Milton Berle, Oliver Hardy, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino I was planted firmly within the confines of one of Earth’s most beautiful movie palaces, The Castro Theatre, for what was to be a full day of Charlie Chaplin films featuring his iconic character, The Tramp, who non-coincidentally made his film debut exactly 100 years to the very day. Happy birthday, Tramp!

For eight hours I was treated to live musical accompaniment for four of Chaplin’s short films, as well as two of his feature lengths. Jon Mirsalis handled all of the shorts on his piano, while Timothy Brock conducted the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra for the feature lengths. As was to be expected, the music was fantastically flawless. In between these films there was a crowd-pleasing look-a-like contest, a slew of factoids from Chaplin historian, Jeffrey Vance, and a lot of happy conversations ranging from all audience members, whether they were super young, incredibly old, or somewhere in between.

As far as comedians in the silent era go, Charlie Chaplin is not my favorite, not even my second favorite. With that being said the films I have seen of his so far, along with the ones that I watched here were all pretty amazing. My takes on what I saw, after the jump

The Vagabond (1916)

The_Vagabond_stillfour-stars4In The Vagabond, Chaplin plays a violinist who wanders – actually, it’s more like he waddles and stumbles – upon a gypsy caravan where he promptly charms a very pretty damsel in distress.

As joyous as it were watching the seemingly subtle ways in which Chaplin would turn an otherwise mundane task such as washing your face, playing a fiddle, or setting a table into hilarious slapstick, it still couldn’t top the film’s opening sequence involving some rival street musicians, and a bar mishap. Talk about great set pieces, framing, and comedic timing. Some of the best examples of these three things happen within the first three or so minutes of The Vagabond.

Easy Street (1917)

foto2bigthree-stars15In the Tramp’s universe it’s quite easy to land a job as a policeman, seemingly within the same day of responding to a help wanted sign. However, patrolling a tough section of town, literally named Easy Street, and putting a feared brutish bully into his place, not so easy. That’s not to say the pint-sized tramp isn’t up for the task. Making good use of gas-lit street lamps, two-story buildings, furniture, and his surrounding straight-faced cast, the Tramp single-handedly turns the violent ways of Easy Street into a peaceful location, all the while being both funny and enduring.

Best laugh-out-loud Chaplin moment in this film was when the Tramp, totally straight-faced, began feeding a roomful of children seeds much the way a farmer would feed his chickens. It was unexpected and had an improvisational feel to it. Given Chaplin’s reputation as a perfectionist, it’s unlikely that this scene was unscripted, but it sure felt like it was.

The Cure (1917)

the-cure-pic-620x400four-stars4A revolving door, a health spa, and a suitcase containing a full bar’s worth of alcohol. In the hands of Chaplin, that’s more than enough artillery to keep 30 minutes of rapid fire hijinks coming. If alcohol abuse was as fun as it appears to be presented here, no doubt I would be chugging barrels of whisky today and every other day until I was found dead from alcohol poisoning.

Those of you impressed with the choreography, use of props, and the physical humor that Jackie Chan would bring to his films in his heyday you will no doubt revel in watching Chaplin avoid and defend bodily harm from one over enthused masseur who treats his clients as if they were pizza dough in need of some serious kneading.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Chaplin_Kid_Auto_Racesfour-stars4Where were you 100 years ago to the day as of January 11th, 2014? Yeah, I wasn’t born yet either. But for many picture show goers they were witnessing the debut of Chaplin’s most iconic character, The Tramp. Those lucky son-of-a-bitches.

Filmed in just 45 minutes, and with a runtime of only 11 minutes, this introduction to The Tramp has to be one of the earliest examples of viral marketing. Here Chaplin uses a real boxcar derby event as the backdrop to showcase his Tramp. Unbeknownst to much of the crowd and camera crew for most of the day, Chaplin seems to be having a field day as he plays the role of the interfering nincompoop. It’s a simple premise of fly-on-the-wall slapstick in where not a whole lot happens, but yet I can’t help but be tickled with what is happening. Watching 11 minutes of someone make faces and interfere with a news crew should never be this funny.

The Kid (1921)

tumblr_m4yj5hWnoG1qbaielo1_500four-stars4“A picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear.” No other opening title card for any silent film I’ve seen thus far has been able to mirror my sentiments quite like that quote seen at the start of The Kid. Chaplin’s story of a poor bachelor’s forced entry into fatherhood after stumbling across an abandoned baby in the streets has more than its fair share of smiles, including a fanciful dream sequence, and a morning routine scenario so grin-inducing that as soon as I purchase this DVD I plan on watching it at least 20 times in a row.

As for the tear, well for me there were more than one, but that’s mostly due to the story being about a loving father and his son, a thematic element that almost always will elicit at least one tear from me. Admittedly, it’s a cinematic vulnerability of mine. However, judging from the packed crowd’s reactions throughout the film, as well as the already accepted mass critical praise, I’d say you don’t have to be a male softy like myself in order to fully appreciate all the nuanced sentimentality Chaplin has put into this classic.

Gold Rush (1925)

flicks_couch1-2_20five-starsWhat can be said about the most expensive comedy to produce of the entire comedic silent film era that hasn’t already been said? Not much, I’m sure. Still, I’m not going to let a little thing like that stop me from adding my two cents.

I loved the epic scope and overall grandiose feeling of this picture. Even though this film has a great deal of slapstick and various amounts of set pieces to showcase such antics, at no time does it feel shallow, or even repetitive. It became apparent pretty early on that I was watching something much more than just a bunch of gags being strung together in order to fill a standard feature length runtime.

The true genius of Gold Rush though is that it accomplishes a feat nearly impossible to obtain, even by the most brilliant of filmmakers. What it does is unabashedly wear several genres on its sleeves, seamlessly transitioning from comedy to drama to thriller without ever rattling the viewer. Keep in mind, the drama is truly heavy-hearted stuff, the comedy is outrageous and at times over-the-top, and the thrills are every bit as nail biting as any full fledged thrill ride could possibly be. Other filmmakers might have tried to mix genres the way Chaplin does here, but as of yet I have not seen any one of them pull it off. God damn, the man was really good at making films!

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Categories: Reviews, Silent Film Festival

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