Few entertainers are so iconic that they can be identified by their wardrobe alone. When Jermaine Jackson crooned the popular standard “Smile” at his brother Michael’s memorial concert, he sported a single rhinestone-encrusted glove more dazzling than the star-studded lineup or the gold-plated coffin. That a chintzy piece of costume jewelry could shine so brilliantly was a testament to the Midas-like magic of a fully realized creative personality. Yet the King of Pop himself would have happily bowed before the composer of “Smile” (his personal hero), a vaudeville-cum-Hollywood comedian best remembered for his bowler hat and black, trapezoidal mustache. I’m talking, of course, about the original global superstar: the one and only Charlie Chaplin.
This Sunday, November 29, Anthology Film Archives will be screening a whole day’s worth of shorts surveying Chaplin’s earliest filmmaking period, from his 1914 arrival at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios to the start of his feature-length filmmaking in 1921. In those short eight years, Chaplin would crest the wave of cinema’s global saturation to become the most universally recognized figure of his time. Or for that matter, all time. Like Michael Jackson after him, he was a superhumanly smooth moving and supremely child-like entertainer. Though breathlessly admired for his technical virtuosity, he was ultimately adored for the incomparably personal touch he brought to every performance. Even when his characters were being impishly antisocial (which was most of the time) Chaplin himself radiated an unaffected humanity that was totally disarming. His face was an x-ray of his soul, transforming the simplest, silliest gags into tragicomedies of the human condition. To watch his career evolve from the anarchic slapstick of Laffing Gas to the tonally sophisticated comic-pathos of The Idle Class is to witness nothing less than the birth of a star, one that will shine for ages to come.
Program 1 [3:15 P.M.] includes the Keystone comedies Laffing Gas and Dough & Dynamite (both 1914) and closes with A Woman (produced at Essany Studios the following year).
Keystone comedies were discordant symphonies of slaphappy sadism, an ongoing barroom brawl interrupted only for an occasional mad-dash chase sequence. In the awesomely titled Laffing Gas, Charlie works as a dentist’s assistant. Picture a waiting room of toothachy patients, a fully adjustable examination chair equipped with a gas mask, and an ensemble cast of punch-ably protruding bellies and kick-ably fat asses. The scenario is rife, as they say, with unresolved dramatic tension. Supply one spark of accidental clumsiness and BAM! Bitch just got a brick in the face. And you know there’s more with that came from. In Dough and Dynamite the location shifts to a bakery. Same tune, second verse. Cartoonishly oversized characters, mustache-kit absurdities and impossibly frou-frou hats abound. I won’t spoil what happens at the explosive climax, but savvy readers might scan the title for clues.
Already in these early works, Chaplin is able to do what none of his costars managed: to communicate a distinctive personality through the knockabout physical comedy. He cultivated a signature walk, gave his pratfalls a personal inflection, pulled faces that were usually funnier than the gag itself. Films produced by mad Mack Sennett were not meant to be star vehicles; they were semi-anonymous orgies of violence, the cinematic equivalent of those animated dust-clouds into which brawling cartoon characters disappear, hands and feet popping out at improbable angles. Chaplin was one of the first comedians to slip out of the Keystone chaos, brush the dirt off his shoulder, and shoot the audience a wink before diving back in.
By the time he made A Woman for Essany studios in 1915, Chaplin’s signature character—the Tramp—had fully coalesced. A creature of pure egoism propelled by the whims of his wildly spinning cane, the Tramp here traces a pinball-trajectory through the lakeside park on a sunny afternoon. A soda jerk, some regular jerks, and a very large police officer are a few of the friends he makes and breaks before heading home with two unaccompanied females. Recovering quickly from a hat pin to the buttocks, Charlie steals a drink from the bar and a kiss from the girl. But then (uh-oh!) Dad comes home and (surprise!) it’s the same guy Charlie dunked in the lake. The Tramp thinks fast and a light bulb blows out above his head: the only way out of this situation is to disguise himself as a collegial schoolgirl! Several minutes of mock coquetry entail, eyelashes fluttering and lips kissy-kiss pouting. Chaplin in drag does anything but.
Program 2 [5:00 P.M.] includes two more Essany comedies, Shanghaied (1915) and The Police (1916), plus the Mutual Studios-produced The Fireman (1916).
In Shanghaied, Charlie happily agrees to play the “crimp” in a Shanghaiing scheme, conking sailors on the head with a giant mallet and selling them into forced conscription. Nothing personal, of course. Although the Tramp has an adult libido, his mental faculties are on par with a toddler’s. Forever struggling with the mystifying concept of object permanence, constantly defeated by the inscrutable relationships of cause and effect, the Tramp’s actions are not so much unethical as pre-ethical. But what’s amazing about Chaplin’s performance is the way that this intricately idiotic logic plays so transparently across his face. Watch him emerge from his hiding place in a wooden barrel, mallet in hand, only to size up his victims for ludicrously prolonged periods of time: tracing out a possible angle of attack, pausing, reconsidering, trying another, visibly wondering whether he should first remove the man’s hat.
Or in The Police: the whip-lash unpredictability with which Chaplin’s character, a newly paroled convict bullied by both cops and crooks, turns on a dime from obsequious deference to open rebellion and back again. So haplessly present-tense is his thought process that he has no qualms about flirting with the pretty young girl whose house he is burglarizing; or when breaking in, of asking a police officer to hold his hammer while he finishes jimmying open the window. Psychologically speaking, he lives a hand to mouth existence in which the hands tends to get lost along the way.
The Fireman, as you might have guessed, duly exploits the comic possibilities presented by a fireman’s pole and a heavily pressurized water hose. In between, Chaplin works in his umpteenth variation on the clumsy waiter/busboy shtick and develops some clever business involving real horses and reverse playbacks. Every other frame is packed with scores of jittery, over-caffeinated extras, transforming the fire station into a human particle accelerator; but the visually frenetic execution can’t quite overcome the somewhat derivative physical-comedy tropes.
Program 3 [7:00 P.M.], the strongest of the day, includes the Mutual shorts One A.M. and Easy Street (1916 and 1917, respectively) and closes with the masterful First National production The Idle Class (1921).
One A.M. was a self-consciously experimental comedy. With the exception of the stone-faced taxi driver who drops him off in the opening shots, Chaplin (as a balls-to-the-walls blasted playboy stumbling home at the end of the night) performs entirely alone. More than funny, his characterization achieves a kind of slapstick sublime. For he performs totally soaked sloppiness with unparalleled precision. Anyone can affect a stumbling gait, but few could so lucidly capture the strangely fluid quality of a drunkard’s movements, his feeling that each part of his body is now moving under its own inertia, drifting around an unstable center as if he had dissolved into the form of a lava lamp. And the ever so slightly delayed reaction times; the rapidly fading short-term memory that allows him to slide back into the same trap again and again; the sporadic attempts to intellectualize his way out of sodden stupidity. (After several failed attempts to combine soda and bourbon in a single glass, Chaplin stares at his materials with a look of cockeyed deliberation and rationally assures himself, via intertitle: “This has been done before.”) And then there’s the tricked-out set, a bachelor pad cum carnivalesque Fun House in which a dining room table turns Lazy Susan, stuffed wildcats somehow sneak up on their owner, floor mats make every path a slip-and-slide, and a Murphy Bed rigorously demonstrates the principle of Murphy’s Law.
Easy Street (1917, Mutual) is a kind of dry run for Chaplin’s feature-length debut, The Kid. A tenement slum suggestive of London’s East End is terrorized by an anarchic gang of toughs. Led by a decidedly un-gentle giant credited only as “The Bully”—a meathead impervious to the blows of a night stick—the gang openly defies the police force who are powerless to stop them. But when the Tramp beholds the angelic vision of the local mission worker, he is inspired to join the police and clean up the streets. Highlights include an ingeniously improvised use of a gas lamp; a whack-a-mole chase sequence that weaves its way through a doorway and a row of windows; a scene where the Tramp scatters cereal to a room full of orphans like chicken seed; and some of Chaplin’s most enjoyable shuffling along. “My feet are as expressive as my eyes,” he liked to say.
In The Idle Class Chaplin plays two characters, each a mirror inverse of the other: the hapless Tramp and an equally hapless but nattily dressed aristocrat. Or nattily half-dressed, as we find him in a brilliantly choreographed introductory scene. (Accidentally leaving his hotel room without any pants, he manages to walk through a bustling lobby completely undetected thanks to a run of impossibly well coordinated blocking and staging—a Keaton-esque marvel of clockwork construction.) Madcap and melancholic in equal measure, The Idle Class synthesizes comedy and pathos in pitch perfect harmonies. In one memorable scene, Chaplin pushes the latter to the point of bathos (the upper-class roué, abandoned by his wife until he gives up drinking, turns his back to the camera, gazes at her portrait and begins to convulse as if sobbing) only to brilliantly undercut it (when he turns back to the camera we see that he is not crying but mixing himself a martini). A central set piece at a golf course spins out an elaborate comedy of errors surrounding mixed-up golf balls, punctuated by Chaplin’s singularly dexterous physical comedy. The absurd combination of clumsiness and accidental grace is perfectly encapsulated in the Tramp’s golfing technique: swinging and missing wildly, he spins a full 360 degrees and then smoothly connects with the ball—which is somehow flying in the dead opposite direction. Capped with a climactic sequence of mistaken identity at a costume ball, and beautifully scored by Chaplin himself, The Idle Class is a full-bore masterpiece.