Sunday, January 26, 2014

Our Mutual Friend: Charlie Chaplin Shorts

On January 11, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrated the 100th Anniversary of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character.  The event was held at the Castro Theater.

The program consisted of three film screenings.  I skipped the screenings of The Kid and Gold Rush...both of which I had recently seen on the big screen.  I watched the program titled Our Mutual Friend: Charlie Chaplin Shorts which consisted of three two-reelers Chaplin made while working at Mutual Film Corporation.

The Vagabond starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance & Eric Campbell; directed by Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1916)
The Cure starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell & Henry Bergman; directed by Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1917)
Easy Street starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance & Eric Campbell; directed by Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1917)

All three films were accompanied by Jon Mirsalis on piano.  Mr. Mirsalis runs a fansite honoring Lon Chaney, Sr.

I misplaced the program for the event so I wasn't able to read about the films or Chaplin.  Those programs are typically very informative (although there is a tendency to digress) so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in writing this entry.  Typically, I watch the film, read the program article on the film, let my memory of the film filter through the words written in the program and write my thoughts days/weeks/months later.

If one had no idea about the chronology of Chaplin's filmography, one would still suspect these Mutual films predated his most memorable film appearances as the Little Tramp.  First, they were shorter films - approximately 30 minutes each.  The costuming was off a little from the Tramp's later, more familiar look (see photo below).  Most importantly, the three films lacked the pathos which is so inextricably linked to the Tramp.  He even gets the girl in two of the films!

The three films did not feature The Little Tramp character but some prototype which was interesting to see but vaguely disconcerting for anyone who is familiar with and admires Chaplin's most celebrated works.

In The Vagabond, Chaplin is a street musician who wanders into a gypsy encampment.  She falls for the gypsy girl (Purviance) who is abused by the gypsy chief (Eric Campbell).  Actually, I believe Purviance's character was kidnapped by gypsies which explains why a wealthy family is looking for her.  One of men searching for her is clearly attracted to her.  When they find her, she jumps at opportunity to leave the gypsy life behind and rides off in the limousine...only to have the car be turned so they can go back and pick up the Tramp.  Presumably, she is choosing the Tramp over the wealthier, more attractive man although it could be interpreted that she is simply lifting him out of poverty.  Regardless, the Tramp shouldn't be riding off in the limousine with the girl under any circumstances.

In Easy Street, the Tramp spends most of the film dressed in a police uniform.  He is duly appointed police officer!  The Tramp can never be The Man!  Anyway, Chaplin is assigned to the titular Easy Street which is anything but.  It's a rough and tumble block ruled over by Eric Campbell as a quick-fisted criminal.  Campbell & Chaplin mix it up a few times with the Tramp's ingenuity and dexterity saving his bacon.  Eventually, Purviance is kidnapped by a rapist opium addict and is rescued by Chaplin.  The depiction of the opium den and rapist's intentions were darker than usual for a Chaplin film.  Of the three films on the program, this was my favorite although I was mild about all three.

The Cure is set at an alcohol detox spa.  The Tramp is a drunkard (?)  in need of "the cure" which in this case involves drinking the therapeutic water from a spring near the spa. The Tramp arrives with a suitcase full of alcohol which promptly gets thrown out the window and its contents inadvertently contaminate the spring water.  As you can imagine, much of the humor comes from the unwitting intoxication of all who partake of the spring water.  Henry Bergman plays a burly masseur who has the funniest scenes in the film.  As I learned from Chaplin, one of his earliest characters was the unsteady, stumbling drunk which seems more prevalent in The Cure than The Tramp.

All in all, the program was not the most memorable of screenings from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival but I was still entertained.

Charlie Chaplin & Edna Purviance in The Cure


Speaking of silent films...the Stanford Theater is screening two silent films this week.  Today, That Certain Thing (1928) is screening at 4:30 and 7:30.  On Wednesday & Thursday (January 29 & 30), The Power of the Press (1928) is screening at 7:30 nightly.  That Certain Thing is paired up with It Happened One Night (1934) and The Power of the Press is on a double bill with Platinum Blonde (1931).  All four films were directed by Frank Capra.  Dennis James is accompanying the silent films on the Stanford Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer.

I believe I saw James in the audience at the Castro Theater last night.  He was watching Noir City's screening of The Hitch-Hiker.  The film was scheduled to start at 9:30 PM but was at least 30 minutes late.  That Certain Thing screened last night at the Stanford at 7:30 with James accompanying it.  It would have been tight for him to get from Palo Alto to San Francisco (door-to-door) in the time between screenings so maybe it wasn't him.

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