Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Little Tramp Returns

As I mentioned, there was a Charlie Chaplin retrospective at the Castro Theater in September. I went to several of the screenings.

The Circus silent with intertitles; (1928, 72 min.)
The Idle Class with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1921, 32 min.)
A Day's Pleasure with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1919, 19 min.)
City Lights with Virginia Cherrill; silent with intertitles; (1931, 87 min.)
A Dog's Life with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1918, 33 min.)
Sunnyside with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1919, 30 min.)
The Kid with Edna Purviance & Jackie Coogan; silent with intertitles; (1921, 54 min.)

All the films starred and were directed by Chaplin. All the films (except City Lights, I believe) were re-scored by Chaplin in the later part of his life.

As it turned out, I had previously seen all the films except A Dog's Life and The Kid. I saw most of the film in December 2007 when the Castro and PFA had a similar Chaplin retrospective.

I won't recount the films that I've previously seen except City Lights. Having seen several Chaplin films, I think my two favorite are City Lights and Modern Times which are similar in that they were released well into the "talkie" era but largely used silent film techniques. The films were scored and had some sound effects but there was no dialogue. Instead, intertitle cards were used. I guess Chaplin perfected the silent film except he didn't do it until after sound came to the movies.

City Lights has the Little Tramp trying to raise money for an operation to restore the eyesight of a blind woman (Cherrill). The film features several hilarious scenes involving the Tramp with a millionaire (Harry Myers) who is his best friend when drunk and can't remember him when sober. Also, there is a classic scene where the Tramp boxes a few rounds to make some money.

The performance of Virginia Cherrill was particularly effective. I have not seen her in any other films. A few years after City Lights, Cherrill would become Mrs. Cary Grant. After a short marriage to him, she would go on to marry into English nobility and become the Countess of Jersey. However, at the time of filming City Lights, Cherrill was a 23 year old actress with only screen credit to her name.

Her performance as the blind woman is very good but in the last scene of the film, Chaplin and Cherrill have an exchange which is exceptional. Having had her sight restored, Cherrill's character is now the confident owner of a successful floral shop. Chaplin is just released from prison for stealing the money (wrongfully accused I might add) used to pay for Cherrill's operation. Chaplin, of course, knows who Cherrill is but Cherrill's character has never seen her benefactor and is certainly not expecting a down & out hobo. In a complex mix of condescension, pity and kindness, Cherrill offers the Tramp a fresh cut flower and a coin. When she feels his hand, she realizes who the Tramp is. As the films fades out, Cherrill (and Chaplin) are distinctly ambiguous as to how they feel. Cherrill appears shocked and little disappointed; Chaplin seems embarrassed.


The films I saw for the first time were The Kid and A Dog's Life.

Released in 1918, A Dog's Life is one the earliest Little Tramp films I've seen. After seeing more developed plotlines by Chaplin, a two-reeler like A Dog's Life doesn't stand up well in comparison. The Tramp has a number of humorous scenes but his bond to the dog or dance hall girl Edna Purviance is not explored much. The highlights include the Tramp avoiding a police officer by sliding under a fence, a dog (looked like a pit bull) biting the Tramp on the seat of his pants and hanging one while he twirls around and the Tramp outwitting a thief by standing behind an unconscious man and fooling him into thinking his arms belong to the unconscious man.

The Kid was a better film but still has a thin plot. Jackie Coogan is cute as a button. The Tramp is up to his usual bag of tricks but instead of dog, he has a five year old as a sidekick. A few scenes were touching but the story didn't pull at my heartstrings as much I thought it would.


On second viewing, the film which caught my attention was Sunnyside. In this film, Charlie does not don his Tramp wardrobe until late in the film. Charlie plays a lovestruck hotel bellboy. The character is not much like the Little Tramp. Later, seeing Edna Purviance's character romanced by a big city dandy, Charlie dons some of the Tramps clothing. He adds some makeshift spats and cane with some match in the tip to mimic the dandy but the resemblance to the Tramp is unmistakable. Equally interesting was that Edna's father in the film was reading a Hebrew language newspaper. I'm sure that was part of the "Chaplin is Jewish" conspiracy.

Seeing Chaplin in a role other than the Little Tramp and playing the role well made me wonder what Chaplin could have accomplished if he were not so committed to playing the Little Tramp. Of course, he was the most accomplished actor in Hollywood of his generation and his work endures nearly 100 years later. Maybe I'm being sacrilegious but the Little Tramp gets old for me after awhile. Having seen Chaplin in his later works after he stopped playing the character, I wish I could see more of the younger Chaplin in roles other than the Tramp.

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