Monday 24 July 2000

Charlie Chaplin Centennial

A few years ago, a friend of mine experienced something that he found shocking and he shared it with me. I not only found it shocking too, but felt like I should do something about it and the result is this project which will run throughout 2014.

It's all about Charlie Chaplin, the greatest name in film comedy, and just how recognisable he is and was.

Only a couple of years into his career, which began at Keystone Studios one hundred years ago as I write, he had become not only the most recognisable actor in the world but arguably the most recognisable image too. Wherever on the globe you might happen to be, the locals would know the silhouette of his most famous character, the Little Tramp, whom he portrayed in the majority of his films.

Today, a century later, the modern equivalent might be the golden arches of McDonalds, the MTV logo or Mickey Mouse's ears, but surely the Little Tramp hasn't been forgotten? Well, apparently so, as my friend discovered.
That friend is Jim Politano, a local filmmaker who won an IFP Phoenix Audience Favourite award for his short film Love Sucks and who cast my better half in his thematic follow up, The Sisters of St Mary's. The occasion was the Intro to Cinema class he was attending at Scottsdale Community College (SCC), run by Ed Everroad. The spark was a textbook, Flashback: A Brief History of Film, by Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman.

I have a copy of this book too, but mine is the third edition with Forrest Gump on the cover. The edition Jim had was a custom 2006 edition for SCC with a cover depicting Charlie Chaplin dressed as the Little Tramp and standing next to an old furnace.

It's a scene from his 1925 classic, The Gold Rush, which the American Film Institute voted the 74th greatest American picture of all time in their original Top 100 list and the early film aficionados at voted the 6th greatest silent movie.

The class Jim was in numbered about thirty, most of them young adults of the sort of age you'd expect to be in a college class but with a handful of mature students too. A dozen or so were working through the film program at SCC. While such students would surely expect to learn something about the history of film in an Intro to Cinema class, you might also expect them to have brought at least a little background with them.

Yet the student in front of Jim turned round and asked him, 'Who is this dude on the cover?' A few of these folk had at least heard of Chaplin but nobody except Jim apparently knew who he was.

That is a scary thought. The Little Tramp has deteriorated from being the most recognisable image in the world to being an unrecognisable 'dude on the cover' of a textbook. The man who did more than anyone to move screen comedy forward from its juvenile slapstick days to something approaching high art has been forgotten by even students in a cinema class. I can hear the collective sigh of classic film fans everywhere at this news. To use a quote the people in this class might have recognised, it's 'as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.'

Jim's experience resonated with me for a few years until I realised at the tail end of 2013 that the coming February would mark the centennial of Chaplin's debut on film in the Keystone farce comedy, Making a Living. The time seemed ripe for me to revisit the 36 films he made in 1914 and review them from the perspective of how they evolved over that year because of the new approaches that Chaplin was bringing to the screen.

Another trigger was the new availability of these films in remastered editions in the Flicker Alley DVD box set, Chaplin at Keystone. This contains all 34 of the extant shorts that Chaplin made at Keystone Studios in 1914 (Her Friend the Bandit is still presumed lost), along with the first American comedy feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance, and half of the recently rediscovered short, A Thief Catcher, featuring Chaplin as a Keystone Kop. Flicker Alley will release the entire short later this year in The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol 1, which I've happily pre-ordered.

I'd seen the majority of these films before, but only in public domain prints that are readily available for cheap, or viewable for free online at the Internet Archive or even YouTube.

These are frankly awful: they're washed out to the degree that it's usually tough to ascertain any detail whatsoever and they're often incomplete because of skipped frames and missing reels. I wasn't particularly impressed when I worked through them most of a decade ago.

Watching them afresh from the Chaplin at Keystone box is a revelatory experience. They're certainly not the classics that Chaplin would go on to make in later years, but they're much better than I could ever have believed from the cheap public domain prints. Now I can see faces and subtleties that bring whole new life and meaning to the films. Even the original intertitles have been restored.

Don't just take my word for it. has compared the different releases of some of these films and found most seriously wanting. As an example, here's their comparison of versions of Making a Living. Unless someone discovers Her Friend the Bandit or works some sort of new digital magic, Chaplin at Keystone is likely to remain the only recommended release of these films. It can be bought here at Flicker Alley's website.

Flicker Alley did Chaplin's legacy a great service with this box set. Hopefully I can add a little more to that with this set of reviews.

I'm working through them slowly, as if it was 1914 not 2014, and posting each review a hundred years to the day from its original release.

Note: I've now completed this project, which will see book form in January 2015. However, I'll continue to review Chaplin's films on their centennials, beginning with his Essanay films of 1915 and 1916. The next review to post will be His New Job on Sunday, 1st February, 2015.

Here are all the films Chaplin appeared in during 1914, with titles linking to my reviews and the IMDb pages added for reference.

My ratings for films reviewed are from fresh viewings from Chaplin at Keystone. Those for films not yet reviewed are from viewings of public domain prints almost a decade ago. With a third of the films revisited, my ratings have generally increased by a point or two.

Rating System
1 - Abysmal | 2 - Bad | 3 - Poor | 4 - OK | 5 - Good | 6 - Excellent | 7 - Classic

Charlie Chaplin's Films for Keystone
Title Year H D Director(s) IMDb
Making a Living 1914 3 3 Henry Lehrman IMDb
Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal 1914 3 4 Henry Lehrman IMDb
Mabel's Strange Predicament 1914 4 4 Mabel Normand IMDb
A Thief Catcher 1914 3 3 Henry Lehrman IMDb
Between Showers 1914 4 4 Henry Lehrman IMDb
A Film Johnnie 1914 5 5 George Nichols IMDb
Tango Tangles 1914 4 4 Mack Sennett IMDb
His Favorite Pastime 1914 4 4 George Nichols IMDb
Cruel, Cruel Love 1914 4 4 George Nichols IMDb
The Star Boarder 1914 5 5 George Nichols IMDb
Mabel at the Wheel 1914 4 5 Mabel Normand IMDb
Twenty Minutes of Love 1914 4 4 Joseph Maddern & Charles Chaplin IMDb
Caught in a Cabaret 1914 4 4 Mabel Normand IMDb
Caught in the Rain 1914 5 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
A Busy Day 1914 4 5 Mack Sennett IMDb
The Fatal Mallet 1914 4 4 Mack Sennett IMDb
Her Friend the Bandit 1914 Mack Sennett IMDb
The Knockout 1914 4 4 Mack Sennett IMDb
Mabel's Busy Day 1914 2 2 Mack Sennett IMDb
Mabel's Married Life 1914 4 4 Mack Sennett IMDb
Laughing Gas 1914 5 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
The Property Man 1914 5 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
The Face on the Bar Room Floor 1914 4 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
Recreation 1914 4 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
The Masquerader 1914 5 5 Charles Chaplin IMDb
His New Profession 1914 4 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
The Rounders 1914 5 5 Charles Chaplin IMDb
The New Janitor 1914 5 5 Charles Chaplin IMDb
Those Love Pangs 1914 4 5 Charles Chaplin IMDb
Dough and Dynamite 1914 6 5 Charles Chaplin IMDb
Gentlemen of Nerve 1914 3 3 Charles Chaplin IMDb
His Musical Career 1914 4 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
His Trysting Place 1914 5 4 Charles Chaplin IMDb
Getting Acquainted 1914 5 5 Charles Chaplin IMDb
His Prehistoric Past 1914 3 3 Charles Chaplin IMDb
Tillie's Punctured Romance 1914 4 4 Mack Sennett IMDb


Anonymous said...

What do the H and D columns of ratings each refer to?

Hal C. F. Astell said...

They're our ratings: H for me, D for my better half.

There's a link under the introductory text to my rating system.

For this page, it's worth emphasising that my ratings for films I haven't reviewed yet are old ratings based on viewings of crappy public domain prints. I've increased most of my ratings after watching the remastered versions from Flicker Alley.

Anonymous said...

I've loved following this as I have watched the films this year with my 7 year old girls. Any chance of continuing the series through the Essanay shorts?

Hal C. F. Astell said...

That's awesome to hear! Absolutely, I'll be following on with the Essanays.

Anonymous said...

Has His New Job been posted somewhere yet?