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The Chaplin Paradox

History has been fickle, to say the least, in its treatment of Hollywood's first superstar. But things may again be looking up for the Tramp.

January 11, 1998|Bill Desowitz | Bill Desowitz is a frequent contributor to Calendar

No film figure has been in and out of fashion as often as Charlie Chaplin. How remarkable, considering that he was the industry's first superstar--thanks to the endearing charm and spirit of the Tramp--as well as one of the great comic geniuses of this century. But his Victorian sentiment hasn't aged well with the cynical crowd in the postmodern era. (Evidently it's much worse in England, his birthplace, where he's also disparaged for betraying his class.)

Yet there are a few positive signs of renewed interest in Chaplin: He will have his own stamp as part of the "Geniuses of the 20th Century" series, A&E will present a biographical documentary in May, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will honor him this month with the series "Chaplin: A Life on Film," the first retrospective of his work in a decade.

So, with the millennium rapidly approaching, it's really an opportune moment to revisit Chaplin and remind ourselves just how important and paradoxical an artist he was. After all, Buster Keaton, his closest rival, classified him as "the greatest motion picture comedian of all time."

The LACMA series, which began Friday with "Modern Times" and the shorts "The Idle Class" and "The Kid," comprises four themes: laughter and tears, the evolution of the Tramp, the social satirist and the music hall. The Chaplin estate has provided LACMA with gorgeous new 35-millimeter prints of his features, and the shorts will feature live musical accompaniment by the invaluable Robert Israel.

David Raksin, the dean of film composers, got his break assisting with the music on "Modern Times," the landmark 1936 film that incorporated dialogue into Chaplin's work for the first time and bade farewell to the Tramp. (The film also introduced Paulette Goddard, the director's strikingly beautiful wife and the most fiercely independent of his leading ladies--very appropriate for this ode to the independence of the common man.)

Like so many others, Raksin found Chaplin utterly charming, gracious, urbane and captivating. He additionally found him "a total autocrat" and was fired after two weeks for asserting his own independence.

"I was about brokenhearted," Raksin recalls. "But they wanted me back and I loved the job, so Charlie and I tried to come to an understanding. I told him, 'If you want somebody who will risk his job every day to make sure this music will be as good as it can be, I'd be happy to come back.' "

One of Chaplin's numerous paradoxes was that he was an undaunted cavalier from the 19th century trying to survive the materialistic, isolating, technologically driven 20th century. He was aptly described as a master of comic motion by Mack Sennett, who gave him his break in the Keystone shorts. But more important, Chaplin, who was born April 16, 1889, was the first to blend comedy and pathos into an art form, drawing on his impoverished childhood in south London and his upbringing in the sanctuary of the music hall.

Chaplin's artistic maturity began during the Mutual years of 1916-17. The dozen two-reelers he made during that time gave him his first taste of complete freedom. "Fulfilling the Mutual contract, I suppose, was the happiest period of my career," he wrote in "My Autobiography."

Several Mutual shorts are screening during the series, including perhaps the most poignant of all, "The Immigrant." Starving in a restaurant and without money, the Tramp outwits that hilariously grumpy Goliath of a waiter, Eric Campbell, with the lovely Edna Purviance at his side for inspiration. Thus survival means nothing without love--a theme that embraces all of his films.

There's probably no better example of laughter and tears than in "City Lights," Chaplin's luminous masterpiece from 1931. It was two years in the making, as he had to contend not only with the death of his mother (institutionalized for insanity throughout her adult life) and a stifling writer's block that halted production for a few weeks but also the emergence of sound. Yet the director triumphed magnificently with this comedy romance in pantomime.

The essence of Chaplin is encapsulated in this somewhat anachronistic film about the Tramp's love for a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and volatile friendship with a suicidal drunken millionaire (Harry Myers). It's as if Chaplin has transformed Victorian romanticism into a transcendent ideal. Although not much of a visual stylist, he achieves a dynamic use of space here and even a painterly brilliance in some of his compositions--particularly in the final scene.

The ending alone remains transfixed in memory: The flower girl, with her sight recovered, discovers that the Tramp is her benefactor and true love. Critic James Agee wrote: "It is enough to shrivel a heart to see, and it is the highest moment in movies."

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