Anniversary Post: Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

On this day, 16 April, in 1889, Charlie Chaplin was born. I remember reading a quote from Woody Allen talking about how he preferred Chaplin’s films to Buster Keaton’s. And he admitted that Keaton made better films (as film). This is true. Chaplin’s films really do suck in terms of cinematic art. Basically, he just set up a camera and shot the whole scene in a long shot. In other words: he was filming plays.

But I’m with Allen. I admire Keaton. But I almost never watch his films anymore. But I own both The Gold Rush and Modern Times. And just recently, I watched The Kid. And City Lights is an outstanding film.

It’s not even that they are funny — even though they still make me laugh from time to time. They are just so sweet at the same time that they are subversive. The Little Tramp is not exactly a believer in the American Dream. He’s just trying to get by.

The Little Tramp Begins

Charlie Chaplin’s first film was made in 1914. Think how late that is: 1914! The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903. That was pretty much the first film that used the editing technique of cross-cutting: cutting between two locations to indicate that what is occurring is going on at the same time. (People claim it isn’t the first example, but no one has ever shown me anything earlier.)

Just one year after Chaplin’s start would come The Birth of a Nation — probably the first thoroughly modern film. So Chaplin’s career in film started pretty late, which probably explains partly why they live on.

I had always thought that Charlie Chaplin’s first film was, Kid Auto Races at Venice. It is a little six-minute film in which the Little Tramp keeps trying to get in the picture of some guys trying to film the races.

There really is nothing more too it. It’s funny for the same reason the Little Tramp was always funny: his arrogance despite his low stature in society.

The First Chaplin Film

But that was not Charlie Chaplin’s first film. That was the first film in which the little tramp starred. It came out a whole five days later than his first film, Making a Living.

Making a Living is a far more complex film. Kid Auto Races at Venice was just an improvised film. It has no real plot — just a single gag done over and over. The director pushes the tramp out of the scene at the end, but he’s done that several times before and there is every indication that it will continue on as it has.

In Making a Living, Charlie Chaplin pretends to be a gentleman, out and about. He stops a passer-by and they chat. But it is all a setup to ask for money.

Then, inexplicably, Chaplin gets a young woman to agree to marry him. While telling her mother, the same man comes by and proposes, but she refuses. Chaplin and the man fight. And so on. It actually has a very nice comedic narrative until it, like all Mack Sennett films, it just stops.

Anyway, I don’t have much to say about Chaplin the man; the films are enough. 

Also on 16 April

Released today: Killer Workout (1987), Hard Boiled (1992), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), All About My Mother (1999), An Ideal Husband (1999), and The Thirteenth Floor (1999).

Actor Barry Nelson (Casino Royale) was born in 1917, Peter Ustinov (Death on the Nile) in 1921, and Edie Adams (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) in 1927

Billy West (Futurama) is 68, Ellen Barkin (The Big Easy) is 66, Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink) and Martin Lawrence (Bad Boys) are 55, Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks!) is 43, and Claire Foy (Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal) is 36.

Image cropped from Charlie Chaplin by PD Jankens — in the public domain.

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